Will Avvo Disrupt Immigration Law Practice Like Uber Has Disrupted Taxis?

Plenty of traditional industries are being disrupted these days. Uber has disrupted the taxi industry and Airbnb has done the same with the hotel industry. The legal industry is not immune from disruption and there are likely to be seismic changes in the practice of law in the near future. This has already happened with Legal Processing Outsourcing, but further changes are expected.

With the proliferation of low cost do it yourself websites and services, the American Bar Association adopted the ABA Model Regulatory Objectives for the Provision of Legal Services on February 6, 2016, which includes among its objectives the protection of the public along with the meaningful access to justice as well as affordable and accessible legal services. The ABA resolution gives a green light to state bar regulators to implicitly give recognition to such services by regulating them, resulting in more lawyers collaborating with Non-Legal Organizations (NLOs). This in turn would challenge the current ethical framework that precludes lawyers from fee splitting or entering into partnerships with non-lawyers under ABA Model Rule 5.4.

Avvo has already started challenging the status quo by rolling out Avvo Legal Services, which offers a fixed-fee and limited scope legal services, including immigration services, through a network of attorneys. One of the immigration services Avvo offers is a “family based green card” for $2995 that involves preparing and filing the requisite forms, but no representation at an adjustment of status interview or to respond to a Request for Evidence.  The consumer pays  $2995 to Avvo  directly, but may choose the attorney in the Avvo network that they want to work with. That attorney has 24 hours to directly contact the consumer/client, and do the work as they would any other client. When the work is completed, Avvo releases the funds to the attorney, and in a separate transaction withdraws from the attorney’s account a $400 marketing fee [revised 3/26/2016].

Under this unique business model, the immigration attorney is contracting with Avvo as a vendor to gain clients and business through its superior marketing reach. Avvo views this new service as benefitting both lawyers and clients. The lawyer will rely on Avvo to get business and also get paid easily, without keeping track of billable hours or worrying about trust accounts. It would also help lawyers build their practices as it would lead to further work by the same client, according to Avvo.  The client is also benefitted as s/he will get access to a legal service that is both affordable and fixed, and will also understand exactly what legal service is being purchased. It should be noted that while ABA Model Rule 1.2(c) allows a lawyer to limit representation and unbundle services, the limitation must be reasonable and the client must give informed consent.

The key ethical issue that first strikes the astute observer is whether this is an impermissible fee splitting agreement between the attorney and Avvo. Josh King, Avvo’s general counsel, has argued that it is not fee splitting because the marketing fee is paid as a separate transaction and is not a percentage of the legal fee. Is this any different from paying for Google AdWords or a fee to run a radio commercial? On the other hand, the client pays Avvo $2,995 and Avvo indirectly [revised 3/26/2016] keeps a part of it, which is a percentage of the fee that the client has paid towards processing the green card case. And so, if something looks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, it is indeed a duck; and in this instance, it is indeed fee splitting. Avvo was started by Mark Britton, former General Counsel to Expedia. Avvo is like Expedia—if I am buying an airline ticket through Expedia I am paying Expedia but they are sending it to the airline minus a fee for the service. Whether ABA Model Rule 5.4 allows this, we can’t say for sure, but Avvo is betting several hundred thousand dollars that they do. Avvo also claims that the consumer is not being harmed and any restriction to its business model could also be an infringement of lawyer free speech. The jury is not yet out on whether this business model is ethical, but there are many immigration attorneys who are part of the Avvo network to provide an assortment of unbundled immigration legal services.

Will Avvo disrupt the traditional legal model where a client seeks out an immigration lawyer based on his or her reputation rather than on a web-based network, and the attorney sets the fee? This author bets that Avvo is unlikely to disrupt the traditional model, at least not as yet, even if it is ethical. A “family-based green card” is not like buying an airline ticket, where you know that a seat in economy be it in row 25 or row 45 will be the same. If the airplane goes through turbulence, the ride will be equally bumpy in any seat of the aircraft. But unlike an airline ticket, there are many traps and pitfalls in family-based immigration practice, even when it appears relatively straight forward. One’s eligibility for adjustment of status based on a marriage to US citizen spouse is also subject to variables. If the client’s arrival in the US was not through a straight forward inspection at a port of entry, then the case immediately becomes more complex. If the client is potentially inadmissible for a host of reasons, including potentially claiming to be a US citizen when seeking employment many years ago,  that too would throw out of the window the Avvo  $2,950 the family based green card package. The client will disappointingly realize that the Avvo family green card package and price is virtually meaningless, and would rather seek out an attorney who has the reputation and expertise to handle difficult family-based immigration cases. There are other variations even if the client appears prima facie eligible to adjust status. The marriage may have been bona fide at its inception, but the spouses are quarreling and living separately, and still desire to cooperate on the green card for the sake of the children. This too requires the agile immigration attorney to appropriately advocate for the client by educating the USCIS examiner, who may at first cry foul, that the marriage presently need not be viable so long as it was bona fide at its inception. See Matter of Boromand, 17 I&N Dec. 450 (BIA 1980); Matter of McKee, 17 I&N Dec. 332 (BIA 1980).

If I am proved wrong and Avvo catches on and attorneys on Avvo attract more clients than those who are not, then others can do it better than Avvo rather than remain complacent like Blackberry did, especially a non-profit bar association that may have reputed attorneys on its roster, and be able to provide the adequate disclaimers and caveats. But if there are too many disclaimers and caveats, which is generally the case with an immigration matter, then I can still see a client preferring to seek out the best attorney for his or her complex family-immigration case, where a fixed price may not be an issue, rather than resort to the Avvo model. There are bound to be other disruptions in the legal industry, such as non-lawyers being licensed to handle certain immigration cases or perhaps someday robots with artificial intelligence displacing the lawyer, but Avvo may not be as disruptive to immigration lawyers as Uber has been to taxi drivers.





Suffocating The Foreign Entrepreneur Under The New STEM Optional Practical Training Rule

Facebook is a good example of an epically successful entrepreneurial venture that was hatched by students in the dorms of Harvard. It is important to allow students who have great dreams and ideas to flourish through startups, and this applies to foreign students who graduate from American universities. Why not encourage foreign students to launch their startups in the United States rather than boot them out?  In our imperfect immigration system that has no true startup visa for the entrepreneur, it makes sense to allow a talented and driven foreign student to use the current nonimmigrant visa categories to establish startups, which in turn can potentially lead to economic growth, bring about paradigm shifts and create millions of new jobs.

This was recognized in the USCIS Entrepreneur Pathways portal, especially with respect to the ability of foreign students to use the optional practical training (OPT) to launch their own ventures. On March 11, 2016, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) published a final rule amending regulations to expand OPT for students with U.S. degrees in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM), but also dramatically create new obligations for F-1 students and F-1 employers starting May 10, 2016. While the rule expands STEM OPT from 17 months to 24 months, it creates many more restrictions, and makes it difficult for a student to become an entrepreneur. The new rule requires the establishment of an employer-employee relationship, requiring an employer to complete a formal training plan and make certain attestations, which would render it difficult for the sole founder and owner of a startup to comply and to take advantage of STEM OPT.

OPT is a form of temporary employment available to F-1 students (except those in English language training programs) that directly relates to a student’s major area of study in the United States. A student can apply to engage in OPT during or after completing his or her academic program. A student can apply for 12 months of OPT at each education level (e.g., one 12-month OPT period at the bachelor’s level and another 12-month period at the master’s level). While school is in session, the student may work up to 20 hours per week pursuant to OPT.

DHS first introduced an extension of OPT for STEM graduates in a 2008 interim final rule. Under the 2008 rule, an F-1 student with a STEM degree from a U.S. institution of higher education could apply for an additional 17 months of OPT (17-month STEM OPT extension), provided that the employer from which the student sought employment was enrolled in and remained in good standing in the E-Verify employment eligibility verification program. The Entrepreneur Pathways, as it applied to entrepreneurs utilizing the 17-month OPT did not interpret the existing rule as requiring a rigid employer-employee relationship. On August 12, 2015, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ordered the vacatur of the 2008 rule on procedural grounds and remanded the issue to DHS. The court stayed the vacatur until February 12, 2016, to give DHS the opportunity to issue a new rule related to STEM OPT extensions through notice-and-comment rulemaking.

On October 19, 2015, DHS published a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) to reinstate the STEM OPT extension, with changes intended to enhance the educational benefit afforded by the extension and to increase program oversight, including safeguards to protect U.S. workers. The rule received more than 50,500 comments—the most in DHS history. On January 23, 2016, the court gave DHS additional time to complete the rulemaking following review of public comments and to allow the Department to publish the rule with a 60-day delayed effective date to provide sufficient time for efficient transition to the new rule’s requirements.

DHS has now completed the final rule. Highlights include:

Extension period to increase from 17 to 24 months. Under the amended regulations, F-1 STEM students will be able to extend OPT for an additional 24 months beyond the initial 12 months, replacing the 2008 regulation that allowed F-1 STEM students to receive a 17-month extension of OPT, providing work authorization for employment related to their field of study. The extension from 17 to 24 months is indeed salutary as it would allow the STEM student to continue to be employed in the US even if he or she missed out on the H-1B lottery, and to re-apply for the lottery in the following year.

New reporting requirements for F-1 students and university officials. New reporting requirements include: (1) a six-month validation requirement, confirming the F-1 student applicant’s application for work authorization through the OPT program; (2) an annual self-evaluation required of F-1 students, for designated school officials to review; and (3) an affirmative requirement for F-1 students to report any change in employment status or material departure from the adopted Training Plan. This is in addition to the requirement for F-1 employers to report similar changes to designated school officials within five business days, which remains in effect.

F-1 employer requirement to complete formal Training Plan with F-1 student. The new regulations will increase DHS oversight over the OPT program. F-1 employers must complete a formal Training Plan, Form I-983, and comply with new wage requirements. The formal Training Plan must include concrete learning objectives with proper oversight. F-1 employers must set out the terms and conditions of employment, including the specific duties, hours, and compensation.

As part of the Training Plan, F-1 employers must attest that the F-1 employee is paid a salary commensurate with similarly situated workers and that: “(1) it has sufficient resources and trained personnel available to provide appropriate training in connection with the specified opportunity; (2) the student will not replace a full- or part-time, temporary or permanent U.S. worker; and (3) the opportunity will help the student attain his or her training objectives.”

It is these attestations that are going to be the bane for aspiring foreign student entrepreneurs. Specifically, the attestation requiring the student to not be replacing a full time or part-time US worker, whether temporary or permanent, that has come from left field. This attestation does not currently exist in the H-1B program too for most employers, unless they are dependent H-1B employers and are not petitioning for exempt employees (those who will be paid $60,000 or have advanced degrees). Moreover, the anti-displacement provisions are currently administered by the Department of Labor for dependent H-1B employers, which has had the experience and expertise to define displacement stemming from employment law jurisprudence through carefully crafted rules at 20 CFR 655 . The non-displacement attestation for STEM OPT students will be overseen by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which has no expertise in these sorts of matters.

The following passage from the preamble to the final rule is worth noting:

             Volunteering and Bona Fide Employer-Employee Relationships

The final rule clarifies issues relating to various types of practical training scenarios and whether such scenarios qualify an F-1 student for a STEM OPT extension. The rule specifically clarifies that a student may not receive a STEM OPT extension for a volunteer opportunity. The rule also requires that a student must have a bona fide employer-employee relationship with an employer to obtain a STEM OPT extension. In response to comments received, DHS clarifies that students may be employed by start-up businesses, but all regulatory requirements must be met and the student may not provide employer attestations on his or her own behalf.

While this portion of the preamble acknowledges that students may be employed by start-up businesses, it does signal the death knell for the entrepreneur who is the sole founder of the startup as it does not allow the student to provide employer attestations. DHS further clarifies that students in STEM OPT “may be employed by new ‘start-up’ businesses so long as all regulatory requirements are met, including that the employer adheres to the training plan requirements, remains in good standing with E-Verify, will provide compensation to the STEM OPT student commensurate to that provided to similarly situated U.S. workers, and has the resources to comply with the training plan.”  This will be possible in a more elaborate startup potentially involving more than one shareholder so that an employer-employee relationship can be maintained and there are sufficient resources to implement a training plan.

The preamble also notes that alternate forms of compensation may be allowed, such as stock options, so long as the student can remain a bona fide employee, and such compensation is commensurate with what is provided to similarly situated workers. In fact, new 8 CFR 214.2(f)(10)(ii)(C)(8) provides that if an employer does not have other similarly situated workers, which would be the case in a startup, the employer is still obligated to attest that the compensation and other terms would be commensurate with other US workers in the area of employment.

While all this appears that students can avail of STEM OPT at startups, it would be difficult to do so, as experience has shown with the H-1B program under the Neufeld Memo, that requires a rigid and inflexible demonstration of the employer-employee relationship. The more flexible employment arrangements, which included self-employment, in prior ICE SEVICS guidance that would have been more conducive for the entrepreneur have all now been thrown out of the window under the new regulation. The saving grace is that the less rigid format still exists under the initial 12-month OPT, and thus an aspiring entrepreneur could start out in a more freewheeling way, and then develop a structured entity with an employer-employee relationship during the 24-month STEM OPT period. This would also pave the way for the startup to secure an H-1B visa, should the petition be selected under the annual lottery, which also would impose the same employer-employee requirement.

DHS to conduct on-site visits. The new regulations state that DHS has discretion to conduct employer site visits to ensure that F-1 employers meet the requirements of the OPT program. Generally, DHS must provide notice 48 hours before an on-site inspection, unless the visit is conducted in response to a complaint or evidence of noncompliance. As noted, the site visits will be conducted by DHS officials who may have no expertise in determining whether the student is being paid the salary commensurate to other similar workers or whether the employer has displaced US workers. Moreover, while the preamble contemplates employment at startups, there is nothing in the actual rule that clarifies this, making it harder to convince the untrained site visitor that a bona fide employer-employee relationship is possible even in a startup.

Cap-gap extension language clarified. DHS has revised the cap-gap extension regulation to clarify that the extension for F-1 students with pending H-1B petitions and requests for change of status temporarily extends the OPT period until October 1, the beginning of the new fiscal year.

Transition Procedures.   A student may still file for STEM OPT 17-month extension up to May 9, 2016.  However, as a practical matter, if this extension is still pending as of May 10, 2016, the USCIS will issue a Request for Evidence (“RFE”) so that the student may amend his or her application for the 24-month extension without incurring additional fees or having to refile the Form I-765, Application for Employment  Authorization.  Therefore, given that the USCIS is granting a 90 day processing time for STEM extension applications, an application filed today may likely not get approved by May 9, 2016 under the existing rule.

Students who have valid 17-month STEM OPT prior to May 10, 2016 will not automatically be extended to 24 months.  Those who are under the 17-month STEM OPT rule are not subject to the new requirements imposed under the 24-month rule.   On the other hand, they may apply for an additional 7-month extension if they choose to, but a self-employed entrepreneur who is the sole founder with no employer-employee structure would need to alter the business model.  The qualifying student must meet the following requirements and must file between May 10, 2016 and August 8, 2016 for the additional 7 months:

  1. The student must meet all the requirements for the 24-month STEM OPT extension under the new Final Rule as described in 8 CRR 214.2(f)(1)(ii)(C), and
  2. must submit of the Training Plan (Form I-983), completed by the student and the employer, to the DSO, and
  3. must have 150 calendar days remaining on their current 17-month STEM OPT Extension at the time the Application for Employment Authorization is filed, and
  4. must apply within 60 days of the date the DSO enters the recommendation for 24-month STEM OPT.

Additionally, the final rule states:

  • Only students who earned a degree from a school accredited by a U.S. Department of Education-recognized accrediting agency and certified by the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) may apply for a STEM OPT extension.
  • Participating students who receive an additional qualifying degree from an accredited college or university can apply for a second STEM OPT extension.
  • Participating students can use a previously earned qualifying degree to apply for a STEM OPT extension. The prior degree must not have already formed the basis of a STEM OPT extension and must be from a school that is both accredited by a U.S. Department of Education-recognized accrediting agency and certified by SEVP at the time of the student’s STEM OPT application. The student’s most recent degree must also be from an accredited and SEVP-certified institution.
  • Students must work at least 20 hours per week per employer to qualify.
  • Students are permitted a limited period of unemployment during the initial period of post-completion OPT and the STEM OPT extension.
  • All STEM OPT employers must participate in DHS’s E-Verify program.

Also on March 11, 2016, SEVP launched a STEM OPT Hub at https://studyinthestates.dhs.gov/stem-opt-hub. The Hub includes resources for students, designated school officials, and employers.

While the 24 months provides a good opportunity for a foreign student to remain in the United States after graduating especially in light of the uncertainties under the H-1B lottery, this student will also be subject to several new and novel restrictions, and it remains to be seen how they will be enforced through DHS site visits. Although the F-1 STEM OPT program had nothing to do with the opprobrium caused by the layoff of US workers at Disney and other large US employers by H-1B workers, that effect has unfortunately spilt into these new STEM OPT rules. These rules now require novel compensation and non-displacement attestation, which in turn would dissuade the foreign student from founding a startup unless it can accommodate other overseers and busybodies who would serve as trainers and employers. When protectionism, whether in the spheres of trade or jobs, has become the flavor of the season, the tantalizing possibility of a foreign entrepreneur exponentially enhancing trade and jobs has sadly taken a back seat.

The Ethical Obligations of a Lawyer Who Represents a Three Year Old Child

There has been a justifiable sense of shock and outrage after a senior immigration judge testified in a legal proceeding that three and four year olds could represent themselves in complex removal proceedings. This is precisely what Immigration Judge Weil said in a deposition on behalf of the Department of Justice:

I’ve taught immigration law literally to three year olds and four year olds. It takes a lot of time. It takes a lot of patience. They get it. It’s not the most efficient, but it can be done.  

The Immigration Judge repeated this same assertion two more times during the deposition. These ludicrous assertions have now gone viral, and there has been much eloquent protest, although immigration attorney Amber Weeks’ takes the cake when she tried to test these assumptions on her own three year old child, and this is what she found:

I happen to have a three year old daughter, so I interviewed her to test the theory of whether she could answer even the most basic questions to represent herself in immigration court. Where were you born? Where were your parents born? Where do you live? Where would you like to live? Not legal questions, but just basic questions that a kind and thoughtful judge would want to know before deporting a child (See first video below.) Although hilarious, her candid answers are heart-wrenching when I consider where unrepresented children in immigration court will end up.

Not much has been written in the aftermath of this incident about a how a lawyer ought to handle this situation, especially if he or she had a three year old as client. Unfortunately, at the outset, most unaccompanied children are not provided legal representation, and even if they are older than three year old, ought to be provided with a lawyer as they are many times more vulnerable than an adult. The Board of Immigration Appeals in Matter of M-A-M-, 25 I&N Dec. 474 (BIA 2011), has already held that for a respondent to be competent to participate in an immigration proceeding, he or she must have a rational and factual understanding of the nature and object of the proceeding and a reasonable opportunity to exercise the core rights and privileges afforded by the law.  The decisive factors are whether the respondent understands the nature and object of the proceedings, can consult with the attorney or representative, and has a reasonable opportunity to examine adverse evidence, present favorable evidence and cross examine government witnesses. When a respondent in removal proceedings is incapable of participating, the court must provide adequate safeguards, including ensuring legal representation.  It is readily obvious that a minor may not be able to participate in a proceeding; but unfortunately the Matter of M-A-M- safeguards are not being applied to minors who need them the most, especially a three year old!

Assuming the three year old has the privilege of having a lawyer, what are the lawyer’s ethical obligations when representing such a client? The lawyer is guided by ABA Model Rule 1.14, as adopted in state bar ethical rules of professional conduct:

Rule 1.14 Client With Diminished Capacity

(a) When a client’s capacity to make adequately considered decisions in connection with a representation is diminished, whether because of minority, mental impairment or for some other reason, the lawyer shall, as far as reasonably possible, maintain a normal client-lawyer relationship with the client.

(b) When the lawyer reasonably believes that the client has diminished capacity, is at risk of substantial physical, financial or other harm unless action is taken and cannot adequately act in the client’s own interest, the lawyer may take reasonably necessary protective action, including consulting with individuals or entities that have the ability to take action to protect the client and, in appropriate cases, seeking the appointment of a guardian ad litem, conservator or guardian.

(c) Information relating to the representation of a client with diminished capacity is protected by Rule 1.6. When taking protective action pursuant to paragraph (b), the lawyer is impliedly authorized under Rule 1.6(a) to reveal information about the client, but only to the extent reasonably necessary to protect the client’s interests.

Rule 1.14, at the outset, instructs a lawyer to maintain a normal lawyer-client relationship as far as possible. Thus, to the extent that a client with diminished capacity is capable of making competent decisions, including a child, the lawyer must follow them. Comment 1 to Rule 1.14 states, “For example, children as young as five or six years of age, and certainly those of ten or twelve, are regarded as having opinions that are entitled to weight in legal proceedings concerning their custody.”   A lawyer may seek help from a family member or others in communicating with a client with diminished capacity; and according to Comment 2 to Rule 1.14, the presence of such persons does not affect the applicability of the attorney-client privilege. When a lawyer represents a child, all the other ethical obligations that a lawyer owes to a client trigger, such as the duty to provide competent representation (Rule 1.1), be diligent (Rule 1.3), avoid conflicts of interest (Rule 1.7) and to adequately communicate with the client (Rule 1.4). In fact, there is a heightened duty to communicate with a child client in a way that the child will be able to properly understand the removal proceeding and make informed decisions.

Still, just because a child is older does not absolve the lawyer to ensure that the child is not at risk of harm. Even a twelve year old child, especially one who has suffered trauma or abuse, is extremely vulnerable and is at risk of being harmed by not being capable of making appropriate decisions in a removal hearing. Of course, compared to a twelve year old, a three year old will be far more vulnerable.  Under the next prong, 1.14(b), a lawyer is allowed to take reasonable protective action on behalf of the client when the lawyer reasonably believes that the client is at risk of harm and cannot adequately act in his or her own interest. This is doubtlessly going to apply to any minor, but more so with a three year old.  The lawyer may consult with parents, other family members or individuals and entities that have the ability to protect the child, and if necessary, even seek the appointment of a guardian ad litem or guardian.

A three year old is likely to be eligible for Special Immigrant Juvenile (SIJ) relief, assuming a court can make a finding of neglect or abandonment based on unification with one or both parents not being viable, or if the child has been placed in the custody of a state agency or individual or entity.  Assuming the child is not eligible for SIJ, and there is no other relief against removal, the attorney representing the child must make every effort to invoke the protections under Matter of M-A-M, and argue that such a child is unable to comprehend the nature of the proceeding and either seek termination or administrative closure of the removal proceeding. Still, the attorney, as part of taking protective action, can seek asylum on behalf of the child, assuming that there is objective evidence that the child will fear harm or the child has already suffered past persecution based on one of the protected grounds for asylum. Even if a child will  not be able to testify credibly, the BIA in Matter of J-R-R-A, 26 I&N Dec. 609 (2015) allowed a client with diminished capacity to nevertheless testify regarding his or her subjective fear, while there was credible objective testimony. This can get further complicated when the child’s parent or guardian wishes to take the child back to the home country, and the lawyer knows that the child will be harmed in that country. When a child is twelve, it is easier for the lawyer to maintain a normal lawyer-client relationship,  and abide by that child’s informed decision. It becomes much harder when the child is only three  years old. Under these circumstances, the lawyer must take protective action by seeking the intervention of child protection agencies and the like. Comment 9 to Rule 1.14 clarifies: “In an emergency where the health, safety or a financial interest of a person with seriously diminished capacity is threatened with imminent and irreparable harm, a lawyer may take legal action on behalf of such a person even though the person is unable to establish a client-lawyer relationship or to make or express considered judgments about the matter, when the person or another acting in good faith on that person’s behalf has consulted with the lawyer.” Of course, all this begs the question as to why a non-citizen child should be put into adversarial removal proceedings  in the first place where a hostile government lawyer can sharply cross examine a child, and there are no readily available provisions for the appointment of counsel,  a guardian ad litem or child advocate.

Although the current governmental policy of not providing a child with legal representation in an imperfect immigration court setting constitutes a horrific gap in due process, the presence of a lawyer while an improvement does not necessarily solve the child’s conundrum who is in removal proceedings. Rule 1.14 does not provide an attorney with all the answers, and is far from perfect. The attorney must use the tools provided under Rule 1.14, along with all the other ethical rules, AILA’s Ethics Compendium Module on Rule 1.14   as well as a good dose of judgment and common sense, to find the optimum way to competently represent and protect the vulnerable child.

Senator Grassley “Hacks” The H-1B Visa For Foreign Entrepreneurs

The H-1B visa program is in trouble. It has become everyone’s favorite whipping boy. Critics rail against the H-1B for bringing in so called cheap labor to the US, but ignoring the fact that an employer is required to pay the prevailing wage set by the Department of Labor. Some of the wages mandated by the DOL at www.flcdatacenter.com are unusually high. Take for example the position of Marketing Managers in New York City. A Marketing Manager on an H-1B visa would need to be paid an entry level wage of $108,493 year. The level two wage is $144, 123 per year, the level three is $179, 774 per year and level four is at a whopping $215, 405 per year. This is hardly cheap labor. The employer on top of these wages must also pay costs towards the H-1B visa including lawyer fees and excessively high filing fees in excess of $6,000. If the employer is dependent on H-1B or L workers, it has to additionally pay a super fee of $4,000. Only an employer who wishes to employ a highly skilled foreign worker will go through all the expenses, as well as all the regulatory procedures, under the H-1B visa.

The H-1B visa serves as the main entry point for a skilled foreign worker to aspire to work and immigrate to the United States. There already exists a shortage of H-1B visas with a meager annual cap of 65,000 plus another 20,000 for those with advanced degrees from US universities. If the H-1B visa is further restricted, there will be no entry point whatsoever. Foreign students graduating from top US universities will not get a chance to work and remain in the United States. The immigration system is already broken because of restricted pathways for non-citizens to acquire permanent residency, resulting in backlogs lasting decades. If the entry point through the H-1B visa is cut off, then we will truly have an unworkable immigration system that will no longer attract talent to the United States.

To rub further salt in the wound, Senator Grassley on February 26, 2016 wrote an angry missive to USCIS Director Leon Rodriguez protesting the use of the H-1B visa by entrepreneurs, which he likens to one who tries to “hack” the H-1B program. This is in direct contradiction to the USCIS’s well intentioned Entrepreneur Pathways portal that provides guidance on legitimate ways a founder can apply for a nonimmigrant visa through his or her own startup. According to Grassley, this is abusive and illegal, but he is wrong. Note that there is no independent startup visa in our immigration system, although America has spectacularly succeeded off the success of entrepreneurial ventures, many of which have been founded by people who were not born in the United States. Sergey Brin of Google is a prime example. Startups have to compete with more established companies within the immigration system, and where there is already a bias against the small business. A startup may be even more rudimentary than an established small business and thus more susceptible to being viewed as a fraudulent artifice. Startups may not yet be generating a revenue stream as they are developing new technologies that may lead to products and services later on. Many have received financing through venture capital, angel investors or through “Series A and B” rounds of shares. Startups may also operate in more informal spaces, such as the residences of the founders (with regular meetings at Starbucks) instead of a commercial premise. Some are also operating in “stealth mode” so as not to attract the attention of competitors and may not display the usual bells and whistles such as a website or other marketing material. Startups may also not have payroll records since founders may be compensated in stock options. Still, such startups are legitimate companies that should be able to support H-1B, L, O or other visa statuses. While, in the past, USCIS has often been accused by critics of harboring a systemic bias against small business, the Entrepreneur Pathways portal provides guidance for USCIS offices to adjudicate such H-1B petitions more favorably.

Grassley has now thrown the wrench into the works of such an entrepreneur trying to “hack” an H-1B visa. My esteemed colleague Tahmina Watson clarifies in a news article that Grassley misinterprets “hack”, which in the tech world “is a word of respect in which one finds a solution to a complicated problem.” Grassley even has the chutzpah to accuse established universities of colluding with entrepreneurs. Unfortunately, his letter is not backed up by the black letter INA provisions which support these sorts of collaborations between universities and entrepreneurs under the H-1B visa.

Under INA 214(g)(6), it is permissible for an entrepreneur to be employed by a cap-exempt employer such as a university on a part-time basis and then be able to obtain an H-1B, without being counted under the annual H-1B cap, through his or her own startup. Under INA 214(g)(5), an H-1B worker who is sponsored through a startup entity is not counted under the H-1B cap lottery if he or she is employed “at” a cap-exempt institution of higher education or is employed “at” a non-profit affiliated to an institution of higher education. While it is true that 8 CFR § 214.2(h)(4)(ii) requires the existence of an employer-employee relationship for the H-1B visa through a startup, this includes indicia such as the employer’s ability to “hire, pay, fire, supervise, or otherwise control the work of such employee.” It is the Neufeld Memo that elevates the right of control over all the other factors set forth in the regulation. Still, it is possible to invoke old decisions that recognize the separate existence of the corporate entity. It is well established that a corporation is a separate and distinct legal entity from its owners and stockholders. See Matter of M, 8 I&N Dec. 24, 50 (BIA 1958, AG 1958); Matter of Aphrodite Investments Limited, 17 I&N Dec. 530 (Comm.1980); and Matter of Tessel, 17 I&N Dec. 631 (Act. Assoc. Comm. 1980).  As such, a corporation, even if it is owned and operated by a single person, may hire that person, and the parties will be in an employer-employee relationship. This point needs to be brought out when advancing an H-1B for an entrepreneur. Still, we acknowledge that the H-1B petition may have more success when there is another investor or shareholder, and the beneficiary is not the sole owner of the entity. That person may be able to exercise control over the H-1B beneficiary, even if he or she has a minority interest. It may not be necessary to show that the other individual or entity has the power to discipline the beneficiary, but only that this person can exercise negative control over the beneficiary’s decisions. There is nothing preventing the other individual from being a family member, and the shareholder or director also need not be residing in the US.

Difficult as it already is to gain an H-1B through a startup, Senator Grassley is needlessly thwarting the intent of Congress under the H-1B visa program to attract entrepreneurs who will only benefit the country. And this is being done when we have such a paltry number of visas. With respect to H-1B filings under the FY2017 H-1B cap, some are of the opinion that there will be fewer H-1B filings because of the increase in the super fee from $2,000 to $4,000 and also since the F-1 Optional Practical Training program is vulnerable to attack in litigation. I completely disagree. The increase in the fee to $4000 will not deter certain employers dependent on H-1B or L employees from filing H-1B cases as there still continues to be a lack of skills in the US workforce,  and the need to execute and manage transformative IT projects with a skilled foreign IT workforce. Most of corporate America relies on the very employers who depend on skilled H-1B workers and have been unfairly penalized with the $4,000+ fee to keep their business and operations humming, which in turn benefit the American consumer. An increase in the fee thus will not be daunting whatsoever as the stakes are truly high for both IT consulting firms and most of corporate America.

Also, the prospects of the STEM or regular OPT being held invalid by a court create further uncertainty for the foreign entrepreneur. Fortunately, the likelihood of the court invalidating F-1 OPT is slim since the DHS has now allayed the court’s concern by proposing regulations for notice and comment under the Administrative Procedures Act. If at all there is any uncertainty with respect to OPT, entrepreneurs will be more concerned and will want to file H-1B petitions sooner than later while OPT is still in effect in order to ensure that there vital foreign worker can still be employed. This will create additional pressure on the H-1B cap, unless they are doing so in collaboration with universities and are seeking H-1B cap exemption.

All this demonstrates the need for more H-1B numbers rather than less as H-1B workers, including entrepreneurs, are essential for our economic growth and prosperity. The H-1B visa provides the entry point for someone to work in the United States, and in the absence of a special startup visa, the H-1B visa also serves an additional important purpose. Many universities have created programs to attract entrepreneurs and collaborate with them, so that they can legitimately take advantage of gaining H-1B cap exemption through INA 214(g)(5) and 214(g)(6). Senator Grassley’s letter may discourage USCIS adjudicators from granting H-1B visas filed by entrepreneurs, despite favorable policy guidance through Entrepreneur Pathways and provisions in the INA that provide cap exemption. Still, the USCIS should be assured that there is a sufficient legal basis to approve such H-1B petitions, and there is also undoubtedly a great policy argument, which Grassley overlooks, to allow entry of promising foreign entrepreneurs into the US in the hope that their startups will succeed, which in turn will create jobs and benefit the US economy.

High Skilled Worker Rule – Is There Scope For Porting On A Labor Certification?

By Cyrus D. Mehta & David A. Isaacson

Our firm provided selected comments to the  proposed DHS rule entitled “Retention of EB-1, EB-2 and EB-3 Immigrant Workers and Program Improvements Affecting High Skilled Nonimmigrant Workers.” These comments are based primarily on three recent blogs:

Including Early Adjustment Filing in Proposed DHS Rule Impacting High-Skilled Workers Would Give Big Boost to Delayed Green Card Applicants

Preserving H-1B Extension For Spouse And Freezing Age Of Child In Rule Impacting High-Skilled Nonimmigrant Workers

The Opportunity to Be Heard: Why New DHS Proposed Regulations Regarding I-140 Petitions Should Incorporate and Expand Upon the Rule of Mantena v. Johnson.

Our comments focused on areas that others may not have commented on, and may require the DHS and even the DOL to propose supplemental rules. However, if our comments are considered, they will greatly improve the proposed rule.

The centerpiece of the rule is to grant work authorization to beneficiaries of approved I-140 petitions who are caught in the crushing employment-based backlogs. The requirement of demonstrating compelling circumstances has disappointed beneficiaries, along with further restrictions relating to the renewal of the work authorization. We do hope that the DHS removes these restrictions so that deserving beneficiaries are able to easily obtain work authorization.

It would also be highly desirable for beneficiaries of such approved I-140 petitions to exercise   job portability, and not be required to re-start the labor certification process through a new employer, even though the proposed rule allows for the retention of the old priority date under certain circumstances. Recognizing that INA 204(j) requires a pending I-485 adjustment application for 180 days, and thus the DHS may not be receptive to arguments that may justify portability, we proposed that DHS also consider promulgating a rule that would recognize the ability of applicants to file early adjustment applications based on a filing date that would be far ahead of the final action date in the State Department Visa Bulletin, even if theoretically one visa is only available in a preference category. The existence of a pending I-485 application would allow for true job mobility pursuant to INA 204(j).  If DHS does not accept our proposal for an early adjustment filing, we have proposed in our comment the following innovation, which we reproduce below:

“Modifying Labor Certification Rules to Provide Greater Flexibility to Beneficiaries of Approved Labor Certifications

Finally, we take this opportunity to suggest that USCIS propose to another Executive Branch department, specifically, the Department of Labor (“DOL”), some regulatory changes which would mesh well with those that USCIS has proposed and assist in accomplishing the goals of the President’s initiative.

First, we propose that the DOL should formalize a policy, previously suggested in some case law of the Board of Alien Labor Certification Appeals (“BALCA”), whereby an employer who wishes to offer an alien prospective employee a position which in substance has already been the subject of an approved labor certification, even for another employer, does not need to go through the entire labor certification process all over again.

In Matter of Law Offices of Jean-Pierre Karnos, 2003-INA-18, 2004 WL 1278081 (Bd. Alien Lab. Cert. App. 2004) [hereafter referred to as Matter of Karnos], BALCA held that if “there is a bona fide job opportunity which remains the same, despite the change in employers,” then “[t]he absence of a contractual agreement between [the employers] does not negate the fact that a bona fide job opportunity exists” and thus “the change in employers, when an adequate test of the labor market has been performed and when the position remains the same, does not offend the policies of labor certification.” Matter of Karnos, 2004 WL 1278081 at *2-*3. This is, we would submit, consistent with the text and purpose of INA § 212(a)(5)(A), which focuses on the effect on U.S. workers of the alien filling a particular position, rather than the identity of the employer who wishes to hire the alien to fill that position.

In Matter of Karnos, the lawyer who had operated the law office that was the original employer, Jean-Pierre Karnos, had died before a final decision was made on the application for labor certification. Matter of Karnos, 2004 WL 1278081 at *1. James G. Roche, Esq., continued to run a similar law firm under the name of the Law Offices of James Roche, but could not demonstrate that he had any formal contractual relationship with Mr. Karnos so as to assume ownership of Mr. Karnos’s firm. Id. at *1-2. The initial Certifying Officer within the Department of Labor denied labor certification based on the difference in employers, as BALCA explained:

[T]he CO stated that Mr. Roche was “unable to provide that he and Jean-Pierre Karnos had a written contractual or inheritance agreement.” Therefore, the CO found that Mr. Roche was a separate employer and should not be entitled to the application signed by another party. The CO denied certification on the ground that two “distinctly different employers” were involved and there was no agreement to “attest to the legality of this condition.”

Matter of Karnos, 2004 WL 1278081 at *2.

In his request for review by BALCA, Mr. Roche clarified that while he could not establish a formal relationship with the late Mr. Karnos, “he was offering the same position of accountant, under the same terms and conditions, including the same wage, set forth in the original application.” Id. BALCA agreed that this was sufficient:

In general, a new employer must file a new application unless the same job opportunity and the same area of intended employment are preserved. International Contractors, Inc. [and Technical Programming Services, Inc., 1989-INA-278 (Bd. Alien Lab. Cert. App. 1990)]; Germania Club, Inc., 1994-INA-391 (May 25, 1995). When the employer has clearly demonstrated that the job opportunity, including the wage paid, remains the same such that there is still a bona fide job opportunity, a new application is not required.

In this case, there is a bona fide job opportunity and an adequate test of the labor market has been performed. The new Employer, Mr. Roche, has indicated that the duties of the job remain the same and that the salary is the same. The same job opportunity has been preserved. The absence of a contractual agreement between Mr. Karnos and Mr. Roche does not negate the fact that a bona fide job opportunity exists with Mr. Roche as the employer. The new Employer has clearly demonstrated that there is a bona fide job opportunity which remains the same, despite the change in employers.

Therefore, in light of the particular factual circumstances presented by this case, we hold that the change in employers, when an adequate test of the labor market has been performed and when the position remains the same, does not offend the policies of labor certification. The former Employer attempted to recruit a U.S. worker for the position and the new Employer has certified that the position remains the same as that originally petitioned for, in the same area of employment. In such circumstances, labor certification should not be denied solely on the change in employers. Thus, the CO improperly denied certification.

Matter of Karnos, 2004 WL 1278081 at *2-*3.

DOL should amend the governing regulations to make explicit, and expand upon, the holding of Matter of Karnos. Where a new employer wishes to sponsor an employee for a position that remains the same, and is in the same area of employment, a new application for labor certification should not be required.

We also propose that DOL should add to Schedule A, at 20 CFR 656.5, a new “Group III” comprising persons who will be employed in a same or similar occupation to one for which they already have an approved labor certification from a different employer. Under such circumstances, it is reasonable for the Department of Labor to conclude on a categorical basis that there are not sufficient U.S. workers who are able, willing, qualified and available, and that the wages of United States workers similarly employed will not be adversely affected, because a similar determination has already been made in the process of granting the previously approved labor certification.  New employers should under such circumstances therefore be able to process their labor certification through USCIS pursuant to 20 CFR 656.15.  At the very least, even if DOL is not willing to have Schedule III cover such same or similar occupations on a nationwide basis, it should cover instances in which the alien has an approved labor certification for a same or similar occupation, and the area of intended employment for the position covered by the Schedule III filing is within normal commuting distance of the area of intended employment for the position covered by the previously approved labor certification.”